Thursday, February 26, 2009

Under-Appreciated Albums, Part 4: The '90s (Part 2)

My disclaimer from part one a few weeks ago still applies to this part two of my '90s under-appreciated albums. Here it is again in case you forgot:

I had a more difficult time trying to find albums from the '90s that are truly under-appreciated. While I did find a few a few that are straight up ignored, I think there are a bunch more that simply aren't loved enough. I think this might be because at some point in the late '90s, I began to develop better taste. I also got pretty good at researching what to listen to (thanks, Internet) and I think I have pretty good coverage of most of the good stuff that was released during the decade. The result of this is that there may be albums that are under-appreciated, but I just don't realize it. Like Deserter's Songs. Does everyone else think that's a classic? Probably, but maybe not. How about Ladies and Gentlemen...? Again, I don't really know. All of this is a preamble to say that these might seem pretty arbitrary to someone else because they're only really under-appreciated in my mind. Regardless, listen to them.

The Cardigans - Gran Turismo (1999)

The Cardigans first made waves in the US with 1996's "Lovefool." For awhile, "Lovefool" was inescapable (and not in a good way). Looking back now, it's a great little pop song, but back then, without knowing that the Cardigans are, in fact, awesome by any measure, it seemed like a one hit wonder by some band with a good gimmick (gimmick: a smoking hot lead singer). I remember thinking a few years later when I first heard "My Favourite Game" that it must be by some other, awesome, Cardigans and not the ones who had made "Lovefool." But whose lead singer sounded exactly the same as the one from the other, shitty, Cardigans? (I'm realizing now that they named the band after a type of sweater - that's kind of awesome). "My Favourite Game" eventually lodged itself in my head enough that I had to go buy the CD. A little Internetting unnecessarily confirmed that the two bands were indeed the same Cardigans, and that they still had the same good gimmick.

Gran Turismo is just great. I hate claiming to know what influenced certain bands at certain times, but it really seems like the Cardigans took some cues from Bjork, Portishead, and trip-hop and added a little sugar. I like to call Gran Turismo the first and only Tripbjorugarpophead album. It's generally very low key with parts almost ambient. Every now and then, there is some more rocking guitar (like the awesome end of "Hanging Around" and most of "My Favourite Game"). Besides the fact that it just sounds good, Gran Turismo is also an album that makes you go back and reconsider the Cardigans' past output. I love those kinds of albums that make you think, hmm, maybe what I thought was kind of bad was actually kind of good and I'm the jackass. I think this was the first album that affected me in that specific way. I honestly don't know how objectively good this album is, but it's one that I love and continually return to.

Massive Attack - Mezzanine (1998)

This one was at the top of plenty of year end lists and probably some decade end lists too, but people seem to be forgetting it as it fades into the past. I'm not going to write much about how great this album is because there's one perfect way to experience it: in the dark at 3 in the morning while you're a little drunk. It's the perfect combination of really, really good, completely fucking terrifying, and strangely beautiful. Everything about it is scary - the blown up picture of some insect on the cover that looks like something that exists in nature crossed with the Shrike, the decent into hell opener ("Angel"), the brooding bass, the whisper-rapping, and even the name Mezzanine implying some sort of nowhere. I think it's slowly being forgotten because it's the high point of a dead genre: trip-hop (sorry Maxinquaye), a genre that lived fast and died hard shortly after Mezzanine's release. I doesn't help that Massive Attack's recent albums have been sup-par, probably because Mushroom left the band in '99. If, somehow, you didn't love this album when it came out or dismissed it because you thought trip-hop was stupid, I implore you to put back about seven Busch Lights starting at about 11:30 tonight, turn off the lights, and listen. You might be different tomorrow.

Fiona Apple - When the Pawn... (1999)

Fiona Apple can be really hard to like: there's this 90-word title that has to be brought up every time someone mentions this album, her crazy "speeches" at various award shows, she dated David Blaine, and, actually that's it. Those are the only three reasons not to like her. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, those three reasons are enough to pass judgment not only on her as a person, but her excellent work. (Actually, come to think of it, dating David Blaine is a completely valid reason to hate anyone). While Tidal has the hits and Extraordinary Machine has the story, When the Pawn has everything. Apple's voice and words are as good as always, but the extra bonus here is that she is perfectly in sync with uber-producer Jon Brion. His varied and unexpected sounds match up perfectly with what Apple brings to the table - just listen to "Fast As You Can." It's a strange song for someone to release as the first single on a follow up to a Top 40 hit-laden album, but it works unquestionably. Brion and Apple take risks, but they come off so well that they don't seem like risks in retrospect.

I love each song on the album, but I think my favorite track is the closer "I Know." When I went to see her live in support of When the Pawn, she played "I Know" at the end of the set. The whole show was good, but there were no stage effects or anything, which makes sense. She probably wouldn't look right surrounded by fireworks and lasers. But for "I Know," she broke out the only lighting effect of the show: some strings of Christmas lights on her piano. They only lasted for that one song. The effect was stunning.

R.E.M. - Up (1998)

You might think I'm a huge R.E.M. fan because this is my second R.E.M. album on these lists. I am not. I like them fine, but they're not one of my favorites. Up, however, is one of my favorites. Bill Berry had left the band shortly before Up was recorded and his absence in the studio translates into a presence. In trying to replace Berry with drum machines, a session drummer here and there, and sometimes nothing, R.E.M. created a sound for an album that is distinctly different from anything they had created before or have created since. Having Nigel Godrich around also didn't hurt. I think I can understand why people might not have heard this album: it doesn't have a big hit (although "Walk Unafraid" and "Daysleeper" are obvious high points), and it came at a point in R.E.M.'s career when they were taken for granted by pretty much everyone. I also think I can understand why some R.E.M. fans don't consider it to be one of the band's best: because it's just so different. It's almost an R.E.M. album for non-R.E.M. fans. If you haven't heard it in a while, you might want to check it out. To me, it just gets better with time.

--Jim Powers


Brian said...

I completely agree with what you said about Up. It seems to me that a lot of bands that tapped into the early 00s zeitgeist--Califone and Wilco spring to mind--took ideas from Up and ran with them, in particular the mixture of canned and live, electronic and natural.

dave said...

I agree with everything brian ever says. he is rock God.

as a die hard REM fan that felt punished by anything after 'out of time' I would wholeheartedly agree with your assessment.

Up was a refreshing release to welcome an old fan back.

although nothing will ever be as good as their work in the 80's (to me), Up was solid album that kind of took them back to some of their musical roots while breaking new ground for them with the introduction of the electronic sound, without Berry.

Jim P. said...

I agree with both of you about Up. To me, it's the only real forward-looking post 80s REM album. Everything since (Reveal, Accelerate, that other one) has been really boring (although Accelerate is pretty good).

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